Pickleball Kid Hunter Aiono on the Tennis vs. Pickleball Debate

“I remember thinking pickleball was lame,” Former Southern Oregon University defensive end Hunter Aiono says with a laugh. “Now I’m the president of a college pickleball club.”

Growing up on a steady diet of football, lacrosse and wrestling, the St. George resident says he once tried pickleball during a P.E. unit in seventh grade and wasn’t all that impressed. He didn’t pick up a paddle again until he took a hiatus from college to work while his wife completed her degree, and then jumped back into the college scene. As a non-traditional student at 28 years old, now earning an I.T. degree at Utah Tech University, he says he still had that competitive itch.

“I tried Crossfit, jujitsu…those were kind of a grind and didn’t do it for me,” he says. “When a friend invited me to an open play night at the college’s pickleball club, my first thought was: ‘That junior high P.E. game? No thanks.’ But I decided to go anyway.”

What he discovered that night was more than 100 students smashing, lobbing, volleying and socializing. Some players were learning and laughing, whacking balls mid-sentence and grabbing munchies between serves. Other courts hosted laser-focused athletes, deftly maneuvering the ball with accuracy and precision, cheered by a crowd of onlookers.

“I caught the pickleball bug and it was over,” Hunter says. He immediately joined and within a few years became president of the Utah Tech Pickleball Club—one of the top three pickleball college clubs in the country. Four Utah college clubs rank in the top 10, with national championships happening each November and a few scholarships now offered to promising players. 

As for the shade being thrown at pickleball by tennis players, Hunter says it might be happening in other parts of the country or on social media, but it’s not happening in St. George. 

“Everyone loves pickleball here, no one thinks of it as a cheap imitation of tennis,” Hunter says, citing St. George as an early adopter of the sport. “And while I don’t hate tennis, I prefer the party atmosphere of pickleball. Tennis players can have their ‘gentleman’s sport.’”

Hunter describes a scene of suffocating etiquette as a spectator at the Tennis Open in Indian Wells, Calif. a few years ago.

“I was afraid to cheer at the wrong time, there’s a lot of silence, and you can’t leave or come back to your seat until the changeover,” he says. “I loved watching it, but there were so many rules for fans, I was afraid I was going to mess up.” But with collegiate pickleball tournaments, players feed off fan energy. “Crowds make the difference—they’re rowdy, they let loose and it’s a huge party,” he says. “It’s not a carbon copy of tennis. I think pickleball’s distinct differences will propel it past tennis.”

See what else tennis and pickleball players have to say about their court-side feud.

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Heather Hayes
Heather Hayeshttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
A Salt Lake native, Heather Hayes has been a voice for Utah’s arts and culture scene for well over a decade, covering music, dance and theater Salt Lake magazine. Heather loves a good yarn, no matter the genre. From seatmates on ski lifts to line-dwellers in a grocery store, no one is safe as she chats up strangers for story ideas. When she’s not badgering her teenagers to pick up their dirty socks or spending quality time with her laptop, you can find Heather worshiping the Wasatch range on her bike, skis or in a pair of running shoes.

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